Firewatch

Following on from Cibelle in my reviews, here's another game that doesn't offer much of a challenge and chooses to focus on story. It seems unfair to put the two together though: while Cibelle offers almost no gameplay, Firewatch is built on it. Campo Santo use the first person view coupled with some chunky animations to put you into the headspace of the character in a way that few games achieve. I’ve been a huge fan of Idle Thumbs, the podcast produced by Campo Santo members, for a long time, so I’m quite biased towards them, and it’s no surprise that I loved this game.

On recommendation from various sources, I played with the in-game navigation aid turned off. That leaves you with a map but no pointer to where you are, forcing you to learn the forest and navigate by landmarks. While not to everyone's taste, this feature made the game for me: I knew my way around some parts of the forest perfectly, a little like a ranger might. When I went into unfamiliar places, I got lost, and when I found my way out I felt relief. At one point the story pushed me to run in a new direction and I barrelled headfirst into a completely new bit of woodland. As the adrenaline wore off i found myself utterly confused and unable to find a landmark. This kind of experience is impossible to find in any game that includes the classic map that we've come to expect. This collision of gameplay and story was wonderful.

The story is told through radio contact with another ranger. That alone could be a boring twist on audio logs, but the developers have managed to make the conversations interactive and interesting. Overall, the story pieces are a pleasantly light touch: a significant portion of the game is spent playing on your isolation. It's not the isolation you find in System Shock 2, however - this time it's your choice to be out in the forest, and that puts a whole new spin on it. As the plot thickens, the fire rages across the forest, marking time with a blackening sky.

I'm hard pressed to find bad things to say about Firewatch. It is short, and I wanted more, but I don't think it's a bad thing to be left hungry by art. This game demonstrates that gameplay is not directly tied to challenge and difficulty, but is instead a function of player controls and art. It's a must for anyone who cares about games as a medium.

A Dig Through My Spotify Profile, Part 3

This is part 3 of a journey through my Spotify profile. If you haven’t, check out part 1 and part 2.

After albums comes a weird folder named Curated. A while back, presumably bummed out about not being at Glastonbury, I decided to organise an online festival. For a week, I encouraged my friends to make Spotify playlists representing the stage of their choice, and to my surprise, they listened. Spotstock ran for three years, producing wonders such as The Trouser Tent, The Martini Roso Stage, The Dubstep Room and At The Movies. I keep every Spotstock year in a folder. For a long time, I ran a small webapp displaying them all, but that’s gone now. Perhaps I should get it back online.

Finally, I have my monthly playlists. I can’t remember why I started this. It was definitely after I saw a friend do it, but I’m not sure who. It’s become my way of trying to recreate the way I used to listen to music. In the good old days, I would buy CDs and stack them up next to my CD player - that stack would rotate slowly and I’d listen to those same albums over and over. After a while, I’d get bored of them and they’d enter the rack, to be replaced by another album - sometimes old, sometimes new. By listening to the same albums over and over, I gained a deeper understanding of them. With the advent of streaming music, it’s too easy to flow from one album to the next, never really listening to the same thing twice. The unit of music that is the album has been pushed into the background by our current music climate. To counter this somewhat, I keep a monthly playlist of anything I’m listening to - if I like it, I stick it on the list. I have no other rules - some albums crop up month after month, sometimes I put a lot of music in there, sometimes I have very little. There is rarely any coherence. It’s not an ideal solution, as I often neglect to actually look at the monthly playlist, but it’s something. For example, my working music this month has been very varied. January 2017 was a slightly more themed month in which I was on a bit of a riot grrl binge. December 2010 kicks off with the soundtrack to The Matrix - what a find! I’ve been doing this since September 2010.

So, finally, that’s the end of my Spotify playlists. What a journey!

A Dig Through My Spotify Profile, Part 2

This is part 2 of a journey through my Spotify profile. If you haven’t, check out part 1.

Moving on, I have a folder of collaborative playlists. I can’t link any of these, as they’re semi-private, but among them I have Our Favourite Songs, which a group of us started some time prior to 2010. I have no idea how many people have looked at it over the years. We add things to it now and then. It is now 40 hours long, containing 619 songs. The quality of songs on there is extremely variable. I also have three related playlists from my friend Darren, who, upset at the lack of Boards of Canada on Spotify (mercifully rectified today), asked for our help in finding music that is “Like Boards of Canada”, “Not Quite Like Boards of Canada”, and “Not Like Boards of Canada”. They remain an excellent resource.

After that comes the “Other People” folder, a home for playlists made by other people. Here I collect things that people have sent me as well as a few things like a playlist from BBC 6 Music’s Anthems show. Movie soundtracks, such as 10 Things I Hate About You and Human Traffic live here, as does Ryan Davis’s Realest Summerjams.

I have a folder called Albums, which is largely redundant now that Spotify keeps better track of albums you listen to. Not much to report here, but I’m going to link you to Envy’s Set Yourself on Fire, because it’s good and you should listen to it, and Gescom’s Mini Disc, because it’s a fascinating concept album that you’ve probably never heard of.

Can you believe that I'm not finished yet? More in part 3.

A Dig Through My Spotify Profile, Part 1

I’ve been using Spotify for a long time. I’m not 100% sure when I started using it, but it launched in 2008 and when I gave out invites to my friends, one of them took a 2 character username, so I guess it must have been 2008 or 2009. I have been using playlists from the start - I even have collaborative playlists from before they stored the date in which each song was added. Deep in all of this, there are some real gems, so I thought I’d dive through them and dig some up.

At the top of my playlists I have Spotify’s Discover Weekly, which is always good for new music hunting, and my Starred playlist. Starring songs went away for quite sensible reasons sometime after 2013, but my starred songs still represent an excellent selection of my favourite music.

After that, everything’s in folders. I remember when playlist folders arrived in Spotify - it was a very, very good day.

I have an “offline” folder that I rotate things through, to make it easy to track them on my phone and quickly download them. A lot of stuff rolls through here, depending on my mood, but right now, my Holiday mix is all that’s in there worth mentioning.

My next folder is entitled “Things I Made”. This folder contains all my timeless playlists, ranging from a braindump of every bit of music that I find helps me be productive to quite carefully built mixtapes like Maccy’s Lovely Summer and Fun Spring Stuff. I also have a few gems like this collation of albums from a Reddit thread listing classic albums from the past 10 years.

To be continued in my next post!

Bloodborne: The Old Hunters

I wrote about Bloodborne on this blog a year or so ago, here.

In so many ways, The Old Hunters wasn’t about playing a game. For me, it was weeks of reading wikis, digging up lore, watching VaatiVidya - drinking in an absolutely endless quantity of information. I loved every second. Bloodborne’s story runs deep, deep down, and each area in The Old Hunters draws you into it further and further until you hit the very bottom. Finishing this expansion leaves you with a lot more knowledge, but a lot of new questions to go with it. It is a wonderful execution of the Lovecraftian mythos concept - the more you learn, the harder it is to comprehend the whole idea.

The Old Hunters takes place across a series of dreams, as far as anyone can tell, depicting various aspects of the Bloodborne story. The storytelling poured into each area is on par with Silent Hill 2, one of my all time favourite games for environmental storytelling. Each area is unique and packed with different weapons and new sets of enemies. There’s a hunter who mercilessly pursues you through one dream, a series of terribly sad blind patients in another - the range is incredible. The paths you can take through each area are as varied as ever: one of the hardest parts of the entire expansion is an optional well that doesn’t even contain a boss, or, at first glance, anything interesting at all. There’s a huge list of things to discover.

The bosses are fantastic too, being extremely challenging while remaining mechanically interesting and, of course, neatly tied into the lore. The first boss took an obscene number of tries for me - I didn’t count, but it was several evenings before I beat him. The rest weren’t quite so bad but still took me a while. The difficulty forced me into the multiplayer aspects of the game, which I’d avoided in Bloodborne itself, which is great - it’s nice when an expansion manages to build on the existing game and encourages players to explore more aspects of it.

If you’re into this sort of thing, you can see my Orphan of Kos kill on NG+:

Overall, The Old Hunters wasn’t a necessary add-on to Bloodborne, but it was extremely welcome, rounding off one of the best games of all time. A true joy from start to finish.

Cibele

Hello folks. I wrote half of this review a year ago and never finished it. Finding it now, I don't really like my writing in it, but I'm fed up editing it, so here it is.

The negative reviews on Cibele’s Steam page seem to come largely from people who had different expectations, so I think it’s best that we address them first: I don’t think that it’s accurate to call Cibele a video game. While there are game-like elements, it doesn’t really contain any challenges and I wouldn’t really say that it’s something that you “play”.

Cibele is an interactive story about a teenage girl named Nina who falls in love with a boy online while playing an MMORPG called Valtameri. It’s only a few hours long and takes place across 3 acts. Each act is a combination of playing Valtameri, FMV of Nina in real life, and exploring Nina’s computer as if it was your own desktop. The Valtameri gameplay exists only as a vehicle for Nina and Blake’s conversations - it isn’t really a game in itself.

We join Nina in the middle of her story. She has been playing Valtameri for a long time and she already has some sort of relationship with Blake. We are made to feel deeply voyeuristic here: we have access to Nina’s computer and we see her world through camera angles that hint at some kind of hidden camera setup. Everything feels deeply personal. Here, Cibele does a great job of showing us how an interactive story can be more than a film and more than a game. If this was a game, you’d be hunting for a clue or a solution to a puzzle, but in Cibele, you’re just in the moment, looking in on someone else’s life. It’s a powerful setup. Each act is another window into the relationship, further along the timeline, and as you work through the scenes you experience the changes in their lives as they grow closer.

Cibele excels in its multimedia storytelling. You learn about Nina’s thoughts through file names on her desktop and the files she hides away, while you learn about Blake through stilted push-to-talk voice communications in Valtameri. The voice conversations have a certain cadence that I find so familiar as an ex MMO player - they’re put together beautifully and really hit the mark for me.

Cibele definitely isn’t for everyone, but if you spent your youth in an MMO or you like multimedia storytelling and interactive stories it might be worth a shot.